Why only 11 percent of the engineering sector in the UK are women, and how this number might be increased in future
Written by: Ben Fielding
In 2016, Engineering UK announced a severe crisis in recruitment. More people are leaving the engineering sector than entering. Even with the best case scenario in mind (that is, given the lowest estimate of the numbers leaving), engineering’s future looks bleak: there are 69,000 people abandoning the sector every year, compared to around 46,000 apprentices and undergrads seeking to replace them.
It is thought that a combination of uncertainty around Brexit, along with rising wages in Eastern Europe, is playing a significant part in the crisis. After all, Britain has leaned heavily on its EU labour force in the recent past. Now that the world is changing, it is going to have to look elsewhere to fill the shortfall.
It just so happens that the UK is abundant with a powerful natural resource — its population of women, who outnumber men by a slender margin.
We like to think of the UK as a hugely successful and progressive country, but remarkably it lags behind a lot of countries when it comes to the STEM fields. For example, the UK has the lowest number of women in the engineering sector out of any European country — with a figure of 11 percent.
It even lags behind many North African countries, such as Tunisia and Algeria, and much of the Far East, including Malaysia and India.
No-one is entirely sure how such a predicament has come about. Critics have argued that it is due to the UK’s arm’s length “live and let live” approach to business. Meanwhile, others have claimed that greater gender parity overseas is actually a symptom of fewer liberties for women — at least in the non-European cases. They reckon that, with more personal freedom, women naturally avoid STEM professions.
Sarah Peers of the International Network of Women Engineers and Scientists places the blame on western attitudes to women, including negative stereotyping and the encouragement of a pro-masculine, pro-male culture that discourages women from participating. Peers says there is a “motherhood penalty” for women who have recently given birth, as they are unable to commit to being available 24-seven, something that makes it difficult to compete with male colleagues. She refers to the atmosphere as an “Old Boys Club” — a lack of female representation which makes it seem like there is no sense of belonging for women.
Throwing a spanner in the works
If these are all obstacles, then what can we do as a society to get round them? Peers believe more needs to be done to educate well-meaning and intentioned PR and HR departments in many of Britain’s engineering sectors.
Peers also propose that we should realign our culture so that childcare doesn’t always automatically fall to women. Men should be encouraged to look after children, thereby helping to reduce the motherhood “penalty”.
How we teach engineering to the different sexes is also something that should come under scrutiny. There is the old notion that women prefer people over things, and vice versa for men. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant, because engineering is about both. The key in this regard, then, would be to reach out to women in a way that resonates with them.
One success story is how the Ashesi University in Ghana managed to foster a computer science programme with almost exactly 50/50 representation of both men and women. The university’s president claims this remarkable turnaround occurred after they shifted the focus of the course from problem-solving to talking more about how engineering can improve the lives of others.
More efforts also need to be done to encourage children at a much younger age. As it currently stands, engineering recruitment usually begins around the A-level age, but most organisations now agree that this encouragement should start much earlier, perhaps even at eight years old. One group, Early Years Engineer, even tries to spark an interest in primary school pupils as young as three. This new early years approach should also be spearheaded with visible, charismatic female engineer role models.
And — perhaps most importantly of all — the number of hours that science is taught in schools should be drastically increased. As of 2016, it was only around two hours a week. This figure needs to come right up, for girls and boys.
If not just for engineering, then what about the UK economy?
There is still a long way to go before the UK achieves true gender parity, from issues such as the pay gap (which is a different matter altogether), to increasing female visibility and more.
But there are some people who are hesitant to implement the changes proposed here. Resistance to change is natural, but clearly something needs to be done to address the massive shortfall in engineers.
Even if the promise of filling the shortfall isn’t enough to win over the doubters, then perhaps the economic perspective is. Studies have revealed that the presence of a woman in the boardroom can boost overall performance by 54 per cent. This alone suggests that there really is some benefit to gender-diverse thinking.
In 2018 the World Bank published its estimations that global gender parity across all the major sectors could augment the world economy by £120 trillion, and increase the global economy by 14 per cent.
But whatever the opinions are that divide us, we must all agree that something must be done to address the current crisis in British engineering.
About the author
Ben Fielding is a thermal insulation engineer and copywriter for Weldwide, an architectural steel and structural engineering company based in London.